Through the first 18 innings of the Red Sox-Rays ALDS, the American League East champions have protected home field, taken a commanding 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series and bludgeoned a pitching staff that seemed poised to taken on a powerful offense.
Despite throwing flame-throwing left-handers Matt Moore and David Price in Games 1 and 2, respectively, Tampa Bay is returning home to Tropicana Field facing elimination for the third time in less than a week. While losing to Boston, especially in Fenway Park, isn't a reason for major concern for Joe Maddon's level-headed group, the fashion of defeat is alarming.
Simply put, Tampa's pitching hasn't come close to slowing down Boston's offense.
Over two games, Boston has put up the following numbers: 19 runs, 25 hits and seven walks. When factoring in the 13 runners left on base by the Red Sox over the last two nights, their run total is even more staggering. They've dominated the Rays, yet opportunities to score more have been left on the field.
The numbers are right there for Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay staff to pore over on a long flight back to Boston, but unless Alex Cobb and Chris Archer have a swift answer over the next two games, this series won't be coming back to Boston.
In two games, the Red Sox offense has quieted the notion of the Rays pitching staff shutting them down. By making them look human, they've taken control of the American League postseason picture.
Here are three reasons for Boston's overwhelming success against Tampa's pitching.
1. Continuing the RISP dominance
As I noted when previewing this series, Boston didn't bludgeon Tampa's staff during their 19 regular-season meetings, but the Red Sox found ways to get big hits when they mattered while winning 12 of those games.
In October, you can make the case that every moment with a runner in scoring position matters, especially in a short series. Through the first two games, the Red Sox have picked up where they left off and then some.
By hitting nearly .400 (11-for-28) with runners on second or third, Boston's offense has choked the life out of the Tampa pitching staff. As we saw during Game 2, a crowd and entire roster can be uplifted by getting out of a jam and living with a lead for even a brief period. While Boston's staff has been able to generate double plays to get out of jams, the Rays have allowed rallies to snowball against them for big innings.
Boston has put a crooked number (more than one run) on the board in five separate innings this series, undoubtedly boosted by its ability to crush the baseball with men on base.
2. Relentless offensive approach
As Brian MacPherson of The Providence Journal pointed out after the Game 1 victory, Boston has a "relentless" style of offensive baseball.
From wearing down opposing pitchers with a patient approach to aggressive baserunning to playing the full 27 outs on offense, regardless of the score or situation, Boston has featured a robotic approach to offense from the opening day of the season.
Regardless of the day, opposing pitcher or score, the Red Sox only have one objective when at the plate: score more runs.
That may seem obvious, but that approach isn't found in every batter in the sport, especially with a lead late in games. Grinding through an at-bat that may seem innocuous is important to the Red Sox. Over the course of 162 games, those kinds of traits and moments can add up to become a team mentality.
On Saturday night, that approach was evident.
Despite a two-run lead and the nearly automatic Koji Uehara ready in the bullpen, David Ortiz stepped to the plate and cranked his second home run of the night off David Price. In the grand scheme of the final score, it didn't matter. Behind Uehara's easy final frame, Boston won 7-4 as easily as it would have 6-4.
However, it meant far more than that. After the home run, Rays manager Joe Maddon finally relented and pulled a subpar Price. Using left-handed relief ace Jake McGee may not impact him moving forward, but it was a bullet Maddon had to burn to keep the game within striking distance for his club in the ninth. If Ortiz doesn't homer, Price likely has a complete game and totally saves the bullpen for a must-win Game 3.
Furthermore, despite failing to break through against the Red Sox bullpen in the seventh or eighth inning, Tampa Bay had chances to score. If not for well-executed double plays by Boston's infield defense, the Rays may have tied the game before Ortiz's bomb. Momentum felt like it belonged to the Rays as they attempted to claw back in the game, even against Uehara.
By the time Ortiz's blast landed near the Pesky Pole in right field, that momentum and hope vanished. The idea of Tampa scoring three runs off Uehara (1.09 ERA) to take the lead was nearly impossible, but needing three just to tie totally zapped the energy from Tampa's dugout heading into the final inning.
3. Capitalizing on mistakes
Since the rise of the Rays in 2008, baseball fans have come to expect a few fundamental traits from Tampa Bay's franchise: ingenuity in roster building, vision from Joe Maddon in the dugout, homegrown pitching and stellar defense in the field.
While two games won't change the narrative of Tampa's long-term team-building plan, Maddon's acumen or the endless string of good young pitching through the system, a playoff series is a poor time to ask questions about the defense.
Through two games, the Rays have committed two errors and made major mental errors in the field. With an offense as powerful (.795 team OPS) and relentless as Boston's, handing over extra outs is a recipe for disaster.
After the poor communication in Game 1 between Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers in the outfield, Maddon had this to say about how his team would respond on Saturday night, via CBS Sports:
We've been playing very well. We've not been making any mistakes. We made a bunch tonight. But I've also learned one other thing regarding baseball: 24 hours can make a huge difference. That's just one game, baby. That's just one. We'll be back tomorrow, I promise you. We'll be ready to play. We will not be affected mentally by tonight's game.
They were back, but the results weren't much prettier. Two throwing errors set the tone for sloppy play and forced Price, clearly without his best stuff, to record extra outs in order to give the Rays a chance to stay in the game.
As the series shifts back to Tampa, the only chance these Rays have to strike back will be to generate outs when Boston has runners on, stop the bleeding early before Boston's relentless late-game offense adds insurance runs and find the solid, if not spectacular, defense that's been part of the franchise's fabric for years.
If they can't, a deep, dominant pitching staff will continue to be rendered human. Even worse, they'll be eliminated with just one more loss.
Can the Rays get the ALDS back to Boston for Game 5?